We Are You

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The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

Rain fell, pattering the street, while above in the clouds, thunder exploded like aboriginal drums. The rain had soaked through her clothes, and a chill was settling into her chest. But she kept running, blood pounding, side aching, because something dangerous was behind her, and if she let her guard down for even a moment she was dead.

Another shriek, a war cry that drained the blood from her already pallid face.

Have to go. Have to get away.

The streets had been abandoned years ago and Diane was alone. Buildings slumped in abandoned lots, while empty cars tilted into gutters and signs hung from rusted posts like ancient monuments to forgotten gods.

No one left but Diane, which meant no one left to help.

She remembered a time before the invasion, before the world had been reduced to broken structures and shattered dreams. The image most prominent in her mind was that of her mother, cradling her in her arms when she was only three. Nobody would have believed her if she said she could remember such a young age, but Diane recalled every word that passed from her mother’s lips as she sang Diane’s favorite song, every stroke through her hair as she leaned in to whisper that she loved her, that no harm would come to her as long as she remained in her mother’s arms. The potent memory of what she’d had and what she lost made her chest ache.

I miss you, Mom.

Then pain shot through Diane’s leg, and the world rose to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs.

The gutter. She’d tripped over the gutter. Diane staggered to her feet, eyes wide.

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

But it was too late. By the time she found her balance she’d already seen its eyes, staring at her from across the street.

Diane’s eyes.

Her dark double’s thoughts immediately burst inside her mind.

We are you, now. The time for running is over.

It was the last thing Diane heard.

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Dark Calling

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Jacqueline peered inside the smooth porcelain toilet, contemplating the depth of rusted pipes that descended far underground. What lurked in those black, hidden places? What horror existed just out of sight, waiting to take her in her sleep?

It had spoken again last night. It was the reason she left the toilet lid closed, the reason why she locked her bedroom door before going to sleep. That fetid voice that sounded like the slopping of rancid meat, bubbling up from the sewers beneath what was otherwise a safe, ordinary neighborhood.

She could never remember what it said. It was like waking from a nightmare, knowing you’d been afraid but being unable to articulate why. She could only recall that rotten, murderous voice, speaking of things that made her skin break out in hives, and waking on the toilet with her pants at her ankles, staring into space, eyes vacant and dead.

Well, no more. Tonight, she would sleep on the other side of the house, as far from the bathroom as possible. She would stick a pair of earbuds in her ears and blast Metallica as loud as she could stand. It wouldn’t lull her from her slumber with its dark calling this time.

That night, she lay on the couch, music blaring in the dark. The bathroom door was closed.

Freedom.

The thought was borne across the auditory hurricane of guitars and drums before descending into the bowels of an increasingly drowsy mind. Soon she was floating, melting into the void of unconsciousness, a soul without substance.

That was when she heard its voice.

Jacqueline.

That terrible sound of slapping meat.

Come to me, Jacqueline. Let me ruin you with my dark secrets.

Like a zombie, she sleepwalked through the hallway, the half-crazed voice of James Hetfield twining through her mind like creeping vines. She stopped beside the bathroom door, dazed, hopelessly under its spell. She twisted the knob, walked inside, and was greeted by the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs.

Come closer.

It sang to her now, a jarring, unholy chorus that held her rapt, binding her to its malevolent charms.

The part of her that had worked so hard to escape its influence was now a thousand miles away. She was another Jacqueline, one that existed only at night, one who’s sole purpose was to serve an ancient, forsaken master. It needed her now, and she would keep it waiting no longer.

When Jacqueline woke the next morning, she once more found herself sitting on the toilet, staring up at the tiled wall, her pants down to her ankles. The earbuds lay at her feet.

Jacqueline opened her mouth and screamed.

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Everlasting Life

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Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.

She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.

Don’t let me die!

The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.

She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.

“Karen.”

Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.

“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.

Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.

“I’m real, Karen.”

Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.

“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”

How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.

“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”

A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.

I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.

“Granted.”

Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.

I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.

If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.

Silence.

Speak, dammit!

Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.

*         *         *

She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.

She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.

She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.

Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.

These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.

She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.

Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.

Death would have been better.

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Merchant of Desire

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He is called the Merchant of Desire.

He operates in a dingy stucco strip mall and has been in business for as long as anyone can remember. Only the foolish or the desperate seek his aid, and then only as a last resort. They’re people without ambition, people who hate their jobs, their spouses, their families, people who’ve gone mad in the wasteland of routine.

They appear in the dusty doorway without an appointment. An electronic bell chimes when they gather the courage to enter, and they blink with surprise as if the ordinary sound has no business existing in such a place.

They inch forward into the dark environment, anxiety knotting their stomachs as they pass through a mostly empty building that appears long abandoned.

The merchant waits in the back. He wants the unsettling nature of the shop to work on their minds. Only the most desperate stay, and it’s only the most desperate that interest him.

When enough time has passed, he steps out from behind a dark curtain, announcing himself in a sudden flourish that makes his patrons jump. He apologizes, offers soothing gestures and comforting words.

He is the consummate salesman.

Anxiety doesn’t escape them completely, but after a joke or two, perhaps a word about the weather, they start to relax. They allow the merchant to charm them with his hospitality, knowing full well he’s a dangerous man who can’t be trusted. He listens to all they have to say, and he regales them with tales of his own life, of his youth in rags or his youth in riches, of growing up an only child or growing up among five siblings.

As they listen they let their guard down, so that eventually they disclose something compromising. A sibling’s habit they find annoying. A regret that keeps them up at night. Unsettling dreams. Tiny cracks in the psyche reveal themselves, and the merchant prods with great care until the window dressing that covers their naked souls has come undone without their having realized it.

They open up to him then, forgetting all about his reputation. They reveal their life has been an affectation, a pretense of passion they construct daily to hide the apathy that’s consumed their hearts, reducing them to gnarled, withered stumps. They ask how such a thing could be so, if there’s something wrong with them, if something’s not right in their heads.

This is the opportunity the merchant has been waiting for.

By this time, his soon-to-be customers have made up their minds. For mere dollars, he offers them ambition, dreams, desire. He offers the opportunity to feel once more, to escape the icy prison of indifference that’s tormented their malnourished souls for so many years.

They’re skeptical, of course, at least on the surface. They invariably call him mad, absurd, even disingenuous. But in the most primal regions of their hearts, they know he can give them what they think they want.

He always has his way with them in the end.

He leads them into the back, a dark, windowless room. He sits them down in a corner on a small wooden chair. He tells them to close their eyes, then hovers over them unseen, where he reaches into their minds.

He navigates the labyrinthine corridors of their psyches with ease, wending his way through broken dreams and broken hearts. He knits and mends, constructs new dreams from the detritus of the old.

His customers wake refreshed and invigorated. They rediscover purpose. They find their mental compass has been reoriented. The Merchant bows and wishes them the best of luck.

But there’s still the matter of the price.

To start, there’s a modest financial exchange. This allows the merchant to pay his rent. But his rate is low and his customers are always surprised.

There’s also a hidden fee, one his patrons never see coming. It usually costs them their lives.

Most don’t last for more than a few years. Their ambitions outgrow their accomplishments and they find they can never be satisfied. They don’t blame the Merchant. Why would they, when the fault lies solely within themselves? They believe their goals are reasonable and they can’t understand why they’re unable to achieve them. If only they’d worked harder. If only they’d put in more hours. Saved more money.

They push themselves until they’ve depleted what little energy they have left, and the Merchant watches from a distance, feeding on their ballooning ambition like a vampire.

Some commit suicide. Others suffer heart attacks and strokes. A few survive to old age, but only as desiccated husks, devoid of anything beyond a heart beat and a pulse.

The merchant always regrets their passing. If only he could feed on them forever. But there are always others to sustain him.

It’s never a hard sell.

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Half-Life

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Fingers reaching, creeping, curling around my neck like choking vines. Draining my life. I struggle, try to pry it off my vulnerable skin. It taunts me, utters its low, susurrus laugh like dried leaves, like rattling snake’s skin, slithering across dry, desert sand.

I always manage to survive in spite of its debilitating grip, but only just. Mine is a sort of half-life, forever suspended between the dark and the light. And beneath me, the creature in the shadows, beckoning me to give up, to let go, to allow myself to fall into its insatiable jaws.

It knows I weaken, that I have not the strength to escape and fly toward the light. It does not age, but instead bides its time, for it knows I can only go on for so long before I falter.

How long can I live without rescue before my grip loosens? How long can I survive?

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Death by Ice

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If John didn’t find shelter soon, he would die.

It was his thirty-seventh birthday. He’d always wanted to see snow, so he and a group of friends had rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains to celebrate. A huge snowstorm had swept the region the night before, leaving behind humongous drifts of crystal white.

“Let’s go hiking,” Alicia had said, and everyone thought it was a great idea. They donned extra layers of clothing and snow jackets, took their phones for group selfies and resolved to be back in time for dinner. Unfortunately, John had gotten separated from the group.

“I have to go back,” he’d said after only twenty minutes of walking. “I want to change into my snow boots.”

“You know the way?” Alex asked.

“Of course. A quarter mile there.” He pointed back behind them. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d teased him for his terrible sense of direction, he would’ve asked for company.

Now, John trudged through waist-deep snow and shivered. He’d lost the path a while ago, so that all that surrounded him were large gray rocks and towering pines. The cold had leeched through his jacket and snow pants, seeping into flesh and bone, and he could no longer feel his limbs. Was this how he would die? Would he exit this world only thirty-seven years after entering it, all because of a pair of shoes and a bruised ego?

I won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

He reached out to steady himself against a nearby tree and paused. How long had he been walking? Two hours? Three? He needed to rest.

No! screamed a half mad thought that bubbled out of a partially frozen mind.

Just a couple minutes. A couple minutes to rest his aching muscles, a couple minutes to calm his nerves. Then he could press on. In the back of his head, that manic voice continued screaming for him to go on. But he was no longer listening.

He dropped to his knees, rested his head against a nearby tree trunk. He reached back with numb hands to form a crude pillow, and he wondered vaguely why he couldn’t feel the bark.

Just a couple minutes.

John closed his eyes.

*    *    *

He woke to scratching. Eyelids fluttered, and for a moment he was dazzled by the golden light that filtered through the treetops. Then he felt it again, coarse and painful. He stumbled to his feet. His heart jumped into his throat.

John was surrounded by horned creatures twice as tall as himself, balanced on horse-like haunches and blood-soaked hooves. They reached out to him, scraping with scythe-like claws. He scrambled back. Bumped into a tree. Fell into the snow.

They closed in, began to rip skin and flesh. It was like having his heart carved out of his chest with an icicle. He cried out, coughing as his lungs hitched on the frozen air. He tried to pull away, but they’d pinned him against the tree so he couldn’t move.

Each slashing claw stole more of his warmth, until his teeth chattered like machine gun fire.

“G– g– go away,” he rattled.

Slash. Cut.

He tried to fend them off with useless hands.

Slash. Cut.

Black began to creep in from the corners of his vision. His arms and legs were dead, frozen weights.

Slash. Cut.

The image before his eyes constricted to a narrow white tunnel.

Slash. Cut.

Then light. Dazzling. And warmth. Suffusing. John marveled as feeling flowed back into his limbs. It was not the painful pins-and-needles sensation he’d expected, but a near instant restoration of feeling and motor control. The black that had conquered his vision dispersed. Now, he could see not only the world around him but more, a whole other realm that waited just beyond the threshold of space and time. There was love, and a presence that wanted to protect him. John called out to it, and it answered.

The horned creatures shrieked, shielding their eyes against the sudden burst of light. Hooting and snorting, they staggered away.

The light coalesced, assumed form and substance. It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. It had come to his rescue because it loved him, and he found that he loved it in return. He was no longer afraid to die, not if the light would take him with it.

John opened himself to its embrace. He felt a tug. A pull. His body fell away, left to freeze in the snow. John gazed down with disinterest.

The light swept him up and carried him home.

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Nightmare

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Sleep. It weighs her down, muddles her thoughts. She can’t let it drag her under. If she falls asleep now, she’ll die.

She can feel the creature salivating in the shadows, waiting for her to tumble into its toothy maw. It’s hungry and wants to feed.

Sleep. It sings of peace, promises solace and renewal even as it threatens obliteration. The world tilts as she turns her head. She can sense the creature in every corner, hiding just beyond the range of her perception, an ambassador from the underworld who will steal her life the moment she departs from the waking world.

But her eyes are heavy. So heavy. Like tiny iron curtains, closing over the final act of her life.

Consciousness gutters like a dying flame.

She can hear its voice.

You are mine.

Yes, she thinks, too drowsy to resist. I am yours. And she finds herself drifting toward the dark, drifting toward death, heedless of the annihilation that awaits.

Come to me.

She closes her eyes.

You are mine.

A cold embrace. Then darkness.

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The Traveler

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Special thanks to Shaleen for giving me the idea to write about sleep paralysis.

Rob lay down and closed his eyes. It was time to sleep.

Darkness. Relaxation. A moment in eternity, suspended in the half-life of semi-consciousness. Then he was drifting away from the waking world.

He was a traveler, an empyreal wanderer who roamed the spaces not accessible to him during his waking hours. He didn’t know if there were others like him, didn’t know if his talent was common or rare, only that it was fundamental to his nature.

There was a doorway in the distance, a bridge between Earth and the infinite expanse beyond. Rob rushed toward it eagerly, trailed by the ephemeral white mist that connected him to the slumbering body back at his apartment. It opened as he approached, and he stopped for a moment on the threshold to marvel at the celestial canvas beyond, universes stacked on universes, a cosmos of limitless bounds.

He took it in, a deep breath of the freshest spiritual air, then burst through the doorway like a rocket. He soared across the stars, a soul unfettered by the shackles of solid form. He could be anybody, anything. He thought of a bird, and he was flapping his wings in an endless expanse of blue. He thought of an ocean, and he was feeling his immense world-sized body crash into the rocks. In a timeless instant that could have been a millisecond or a thousand years, he cycled through an uncountable array of creatures and structures both physical and abstract, visited an unknowable number of worlds both alien and familiar.

Then suddenly there was a presence. It bubbled up around him, cutting off his flight through the stars. It reached for him with oily tainted feelers. Rob recoiled. He’d never seen anything like it, had never been afraid in this place before today. He dashed back toward the doorway between the worlds.

It followed. He could feel it gaining on him. If he stayed, he thought it might sever the cord that connected him to Earth, that it would carry him away to someplace dark and cold.

Almost there. He was almost back on the other side. But just as he’d started to wake, that dark entity snatched him from behind. He could feel the mattress beneath his head, feel his lungs rise and fall as his body breathed, yet he couldn’t move his arms or legs, couldn’t open his eyes. The world was still black, with that dark presence trying to reel him in.

He tried to kick loose, but its grip wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile the heart back in his body started to race, the lungs drawing in shorter and shallower breaths. He lunged at his body, scrambled to reanimate muscles that had been frozen by the paralysis of sleep. But he was maddeningly out of reach. All the while that mysterious entity continued to pull, dragging him inch by inch.

Rob clawed, scratched, dug in tight with his heels. Finally its hold began to slip. He could feel himself slide closer to his body. Reach. He had to reach. Just a bit farther. He could almost move a finger. The entity yanked harder, but Rob gave it everything he had. Finally the muscles in his fingers twitched. He felt the doorway between the two worlds begin to close behind him. He was almost there. Almost

The door slammed shut.

Rob bolted from the mattress in a pall of cold sweat, heart thundering in his chest. He scrambled to catch his breath. He’d made it, but barely. What was that thing? Was he safe now?

For the first time in his life, Rob was afraid to go back to sleep.

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Prey

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A shadow grazed the surface of the wall. Jackson whirled, momentarily dazzled by the piercing gold of nearby street lights. Nothing. Rivers of sweat flowed down the tiny crevices of age-worn skin, while his heart pounded out morse code. He was prey. That knowledge propelled him into the night.

A flashbulb of memory like a strobe: Mom and Dad, cradling him in their arms, the reflection of a past love so strong that tears began to mingle with the sweat. How he missed them. He’d been safe then. The world had been safe.

Another shadow, glimpsed from the corner of his right eye. Once more he whirled. Once more nothing. He knew he wouldn’t see it coming, that even if he’d been looking straight at it he’d have only seen a blur of color here, a lessening of light there. The Wanderers were amorphous. That was why it was chasing him, to steal his body. They were like supernatural hermit crabs, except they didn’t wait for the owner of the body to die before snatching it for themselves.

Jackson turned a corner, sprinted until he nearly slammed into a concrete wall. A dead-end alley. Fuck, he’d turned into a dead-end alley!

Nobody knew what the Wanderers were nor why they’d come, only that one day they’d invaded en masse, blanketing the world in darkness. Civilization hadn’t completely unraveled, at least not yet humanity was strong; Jackson had faith it would endure but like Jackson’s life, it was on the brink.

He clawed at the far wall, forced himself to turn, and there, standing before him, a vision of darkness only half glimpsed. Even in the night it was visible, an inkblot on the surface of the world that shifted before his eyes every time he tried to get a clear reading. He stumbled forward, bumped into another wall, stumbled forward again. Then he tripped over a concrete brick and went flying into the asphalt.

Pain, bright and flaring. Vertigo seized him and he felt like sicking up. It was upon him now, he could feel it. Not a physical weight but a heavy burden nonetheless, coiled like a snake, ready to strike.

On the precipice of death, he saw who he was reflected through the viewfinder of eternity. Then it lunged and the world went dark.

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Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage Illustration #1

He sees the boy, pumping his legs as he soars through the air on a swing, and he almost smiles. How carefree and innocent the boy is, not yet aware of the world’s cruel designs. His own childhood is a distant thing, far removed from who and what he is today.

The boy releases the chains. He leans forward, and when the swing is at its apex, he slips from the seat. He hurtles through the air, lands on his hands and knees, and grins.

Play. It’s a concept he’s thought about a lot. In the small hours of the night, when he lays awake unable to sleep, he stares beyond the ceiling, pondering its manifold mysteries. The imagination of a child, he thinks, is a thing of boundless possibilities, a grasp toward the infinite, an exploration of a vast, unformed world filled with all the things that might yet be. It is an art, he thinks, a special kind of magic that he lost the moment he was Changed.

He brushes the thought aside. There will be time for reflection later. Right now he’s focused on the boy. He stares at him from behind a broad oak tree, shrouded in shadow.

Today, the boy will be his.

* * *

His name is Gol. He is not an ogre or a troll, a gnome, a fairy or a centaur. There are no stories written of his kind. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only one of his kind. He was once human like the boy, but he is human no longer.

He is the latest incarnation of an ancient lineage, a succession stretching back beyond the foundation of the world. He cannot reproduce, but like humans he’s compelled to propagate, to continue the work of his ancestors. Though he’s lived for thousands of years, has witnessed the rise and fall of long-forgotten civilizations, in the end, like all living things, he too must die.

He’s spent a great deal of time pondering his origins. The memories of his ancestors are a part of him, but they’re so numerous and convoluted by the ravages of time that the secrets of the distant past remain shrouded in mystery. Someday, before the stars have burned up all their hydrogen, before the world is an icy ball of lifeless stone, before the universe is a tepid mass of eternal darkness, he hopes his progeny will solve that riddle, that perhaps they’ll even find a way home. But that will be a task for the boy and his descendants.

His own days are nearly at an end.

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